Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Eagle and the Snake

I've been lucky enough to work in Uganda over the last couple of years and this has given me the fantastic opportunity to photograph some of Uganda's amazing wildlife.

I certainly don't profess to be any sort of bird or wildlife expert, far from it in fact, and before working in Africa I could hardly tell one bird species from another. However, when it comes to birds of prey, even they generally get the attention of many a non-ornithologist.

As they generally say, the best photographs require a high degree of luck and this one was no exception. A friend and I had gone for a drive in the Kabyoya Game Reserve, a small region around Kaiso on the eastern shore of Lake Albert in Albertine Rift valley of north west Uganda. Not far from us was the Lake Albert Safari Lodge and quite a lot of the normally high savannah grass had been burnt to the ground in the annual burnings. This is a good time for eagles, as normally hidden prey is revealed and less well camouflaged against the blackish brown, scorched earth, and stubble. Prey is one the move, trying to escape the burnings. We spotted the Brown Snake Eagle in a tree top and pulled over to try and take some photos. My friend sported a Pentax with 50-500mm Sigma lens, me with my trusty Canon 5D and my EF 100-400mm, f4.5-5.6 Zoom. Contrary to most wildlife blogs we don't have time for tripods and hours of waiting, ours is a few hours to catch what we can, so everything is shot hand-held from a car window. Image stabilisation (IS) I find invaluable.

I only managed to fire off a couple of frames (being on the passenger side) before the eagle took flight. Another disappointment. We drove on, just passed the tree, when suddenly there is a faint flash of something light coloured off to the drivers side, the next thing I hear is "It's got a snake!". The eagle had swooped down the other side of the tree and caught a cobra; the flash being the underbelly of the snake as it writhed around the Eagles talons, one talon firmly fixed on the cobras head. We pulled up as close as we dare and started shooting as fast as possible. I had to shoot across the driver so there was no time for even thinking about composition, just get the photo. I managed about 18 frames during which the eagle bit off end of the snakes tail, cloaked it's prey, then it flew off back to the top of tree grasping the wriggling cobra. I keep my camera set on AV, apperture wide open, with only the centre focus point enabled. I try to focus on the eye and quickly re-frame. It usually works well.

I was pretty sure I'd got a good shot but was disappointed when I saw the frames uploaded to Lightroom later on. There was a long blade of grass bowed over and blurred in the foreground which went right across the eagle in every frame. The burnt stubble background was almost as dark as the bird and several frames weren't that sharp. None of the snake were sharp.

It was several months later however, when I took another look and my shots. Really they weren't that bad, perhaps I'd been too critical at the time, it was perhaps ok the snake wasn't that sharp. Time for a bit of Photoshop and Lightroom work. I patiently cloned out the offending blade of grass, together with a distracting leaf in the foreground, adjusted the contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation to make the bird's colours stand out as much as I could against the brown background. To finish off I applied a gradual blur to the background to accentuate the lens bokeh, sharpened the eagle and cropped the frame; this did the trick. Now I had a decent photograph, one that I was pleased with anyway.

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